Stay or Go? How United Methodist churches decide

March 5th, 2019

This is part 1 of a 6-part Stay or Go series focused on the future of The United Methodist Church. Upcoming topics will include: How Members Decide, How Adherents and Visitors Decide, How Clergy Decide, How Boards Decide, and How District Superintendents Decide.


Any decision by the General Conference about LGBTQIA recognition was going to be controversial and fracture the United Methodist Church (especially in the US and West European churches). It’s no surprise that the decision was made with a narrow margin. It should also be no surprise that in our complex and culturally diverse world such decisions no longer result in acceptance and restored harmony. The Judicial Committee may have more to say about changes to the Book of Discipline, but the real stress will be passed back to Conferences, congregations, campuses, and outreach agencies.

Stay or go? It’s not just a decision for congregations (church plants, campus ministries, and outreach agencies), but also for individual member households, adherents and second-time visitors, clergy, and administrative boards. And it leaves Conference leaders in a quandary trying to anticipate future income, clergy deployment, and hot spots of controversy. I’ll comment on each of these in future “Stay or Go” articles.

Experience from other countries and denominations reveals that what is most decisive for congregational decision-making is not the theological dogmas or ideological policies of the denomination but the demographic and lifestyle mix of the local or regional contexts. This is why, for example, churches rarely split over doctrine or moral transgressions anymore, but readily split over worship styles and renovations.

Lifestyle Segment Compatibility

All United Methodist conferences, districts, and churches can anticipate which congregations will stay, which ones will go, and which ones will be battle grounds in the next five years. Use the demographic search engine www.MissionInsite.com that is already available free to every United Methodist church in America.

First, create thematic maps that reveal the population densities of all lifestyle segments. These coded and colored maps the neighborhoods, counties, or zip codes where specific lifestyle segments live. This alone reveals where publics who tend to be culturally left, culturally right, or culturally middle live. Politicians use such maps to focus on neighborhoods that are likely to vote liberal, conservative, or status quo. Hospitals and non-profits use them for strategic planning and fund raising. Public School Districts use them to open and close classrooms and determine bus routes. You can use them, too.

Second, insist that every congregation, in every district, complete their People Plot. This means they upload their list of resident members and active adherents into the search engine. When this is overlaid on a thematic map, it reveals precisely where every church household lives and the lifestyle segment to which they probably belong. As you do this, you will also note that certain lifestyle segments often live near one another (evidence of compatibility) and which households are consistently separated by some street or geographic feature (evidence of incompatibility). Compatible lifestyle segments attend the same schools, eat in the same restaurants, frequent the same entertainment spots, chat over the fence, and attend similar churches. In other words, they are empathic with one another. Incompatible lifestyle segments are not.

Third, draw a search area that encompasses member households of the church. You might even want to draw two. The first search area defines the Reach of the church (i.e. the largest geographical area to include 90+% of member households, and the second defines the Depth of a church (a smaller geographical area that concentrates the highest number of member households and reveals where the church has the most community impact).

Rural and small town churches, and mega- and multi-site churches are more concerned with Reach. This is because church growth follows paths of homogeneity. Churches reach further and further in order to connect with a specific lifestyle group and their kindred spirits. In the case of multi-site churches, they reach further to create centers of homogeneity among different groups, but ones based on the core values and beliefs of the lifestyle groups that dominate the decision-making board of the mother church.

Urban and urbanizing churches, along with church plants, campus ministries, and other outreach agencies are often more concerned with Depth. This is because mission impact follows paths of heterogeneity. Churches penetrate neighborhoods, cities, or campuses through relationships among diverse lifestyle groups who influence other lifestyle groups. Ministries are customized around the life circumstances and spiritual motivations of indigenous cultures.

Finally, print what is called a “ComparativeInsite Report” and focus particularly on page 5 where proportionate representation of lifestyle segments in the search area is compared to proportionate representation of member households of the church. The churches that are going to struggle hardest with the decision to stay or go as a result of the General Conference decision are usually the churches that least mirror the lifestyle diversity of their neighborhood or mission field. That is where there will be the greatest misunderstanding, the greatest temptation for stereotyping, and the greatest struggle to decide whether to stay or go.

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Lifestyle comparisons are not just a measure of a church’s relative popularity. They reveal their heart burst for the community lifestyle groups that are most important to them. Regardless of what their mission statement says, or their rhetoric describes, the facts reveal the truth. Churches will align themselves around the lifestyle segments they cherish, rather than an ideological agenda imposed from outside. If they stay, they will stay for the people they love. If they go, they will go to the people they love. And when it comes to love, decisions are made with the heart rather than the mind. Whether or not you approve of them or agree with them, you never abandon them. It sounds simplistic, but birds of a feather flock together.

Consider lifestyle segments commonly associated with United Methodist churches.

For example, congregations with high representation of C11 Aging of Aquarius, C13 Silver Sophisticates, E19 Full Pockets Empty Nests, O51 Digital Dependents, G24 Status Seeking Singles, and others tend to be culturally left. They tend to live in culturally diverse urban centers or near universities, and their extended families and career relationships include LGBTQ relationships that are cherished. They are more likely to go than stay, especially if the church limits their leadership options, program preferences, or mission priorities in a way that discriminates against people they love.

Meanwhile, congregations with high representation of C14 Golf Carts and Gourmets, E20 No Place like Home, J35 Rural Escape, D15 Sports Utility Families and others tend to be culturally right. They tend to live in more exurban, rural, and mid-market city contexts that embrace more homogeneous populations with fewer non-traditional households. They are more likely to stay than go in solidarity with the people they love. However, they will also resent any extremists who try to dictate behavior or limit their freedom.

And congregations with high representation of B09 Babies and Bliss, B07 Generational Soup, H28 Everyday Moderates, I33 Balance and Harmony and others tend to be culturally middle. They tend to go along with whatever consensus approves and the hierarchy says. They focus on tradition, and protect the harmonious core of the church. They may stay or they may go, but the one thing that are not going to do is fight over it. If the denomination or clergy, or this faction or another, forces a fight, they will just leave.

The point is that lifestyle, not ideology, will be more influential when decisions are made. Ideology may be a factor (often due to particularly intimidating member households or pushy extremists). When the votes are in, however, members generally choose to be with the lifestyle segments with whom they are most empathic.

Lifestyle Segment Conflict

The challenge, of course, is that congregational culture is shaped by the top 50-60% of lifestyle representation, and for many churches that means 3-6 lifestyles influence the culture of a church. Everything is shaped around their tastes, opinions, preferences and priorities including what coffee is served, what sermons are praised, and which laity are elected to the board. What happens when the largest lifestyle segments shaping the culture of a church have a heart burst for different community groups? Church leaders can anticipate potential congregational battlegrounds because these are often churches at the leading edge of urbanization or the receiving end of centralization.

The churches at the leading edge of urbanization are closest to major transportation routes (e.g. Interstate highways), attracting commuting households, and transforming small towns. The churches on the receiving end of centralization are in expanding towns and small cities that are becoming hubs for health care, public education, and social serviceIn these urbanizing and centralizing environments, some members will go and some will stay and some will retreat to the sidelines to avoid conflict. The end result is that whether they stay, go, or watch many will lose the critical mass to sustain an independent church with a full time minister, and the church presence and impact will be diminished.

The role of clergy can be decisive, but this really doesn’t depend on their personal ideological perspective. They may be liberal or conservative, but their credibility depends on lifestyle empathy. The old adage that churches follow their leaders is not accurate. Churches follow the leaders that they love, and they listen to the leaders who love them. It doesn’t matter how well you preach, where you went to seminary, or how effectively you can argue your liberal or conservative agenda. Only when clergy demonstrate real empathy for lifestyles who are both over- and under-represented in the church compared to the community, can they help warring lifestyle segments understand each other and the diversity around them.

In the stressful demographic process of urbanization and centralization, conflicts between lifestyle segments are not resolved by theological or ideological education. They are resolved when the “fruits of the spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control) are modeled by leaders, for this is the only glue that can bond all lifestyle segments together.

The bottom line is that congregations will resort to the “default” decision-making process to which they turn whenever they are in unresolvable quandaries. It doesn’t matter what the bishop says, the policy dictates, or the demagogues preach. Churches will make up their minds to do whatever they want to bless the people they love.

Lifestyle Decision-making and the Pace of Change

Demographics and lifestyle research will also determine how quickly congregations make their decisions.

Lifestyle segments oriented to the cultural left tend to make decisions more horizontally than vertically. This is a metaphorical way of saying that they make decisions through constant internal and external dialogue. They talk to themselves and to friends in a shared quest for the best decision. This is one reason why social media is especially important to younger, mobile, urbanizing lifestyle segments with cross-cultural relationships. They are constantly learning. No decision is really final. There is a reason I renamed the cultural left among church people as the Culturally Ambivalent in my book Sideline Church. Every decision, no matter how passionately made, is tentative.

Lifestyle segments oriented to the cultural right tend to make decisions more vertically than horizontally. In other words, they make decisions by consulting authorities, experts, ancestors, or precedents. This is one reason why printed curricula, telephone trees, and verbal announcements are especially important to older, residential, centralizing lifestyle segments with deep roots in homogeneous communities. They, too, are learning, but the conclusion is more important than the process. Every decision is final (or at least should be). Set it aside and move on to the next question. This is why I renamed the cultural right among church people as the Culturally Righteous. They do the research, listen to the sermon, ask their grandparents, make up their mind, and act promptly.

What this means is that among the Culturally Ambivalent, decisions will take more time. It takes them longer to get organized because they must work through a tangle of opinions and reconcile a number of factions. It will not become immediately apparent to the United Methodist Conference leaders which churches will stay or go. But it will become clearer, and the process will accelerate, over the next five years. Bishops and District Superintendents have some time to interpret, nuance, customize, and persuade dissatisfied churches.

If the General Conference decision had gone the other way, the decisions to stay or go would have been more immediate. Lifestyle segments among the Culturally Righteous would have more quickly coalesced and organized, and settlements over property rights and personnel would have been made within a year. Church hierarchy would have had to scramble to persuade churches to stay.

Once a general conferences votes, delegates often return home with a sense of fulfillment. Congregations are lulled into a false complacency. After all, the majority has spoken. The matter is settled. In fact, the cracks have only begun to open and will widen in the decade to come.

Heart to Heart

I have personally experienced one denominational split over sexual orientation as a new church development pastor and led reconciliation efforts as a national church staffer. I’ve observed three more as a consultant and helped church leaders figure out what to do as a coach. My observation is that the outcomes of any decision decided by a majority vote in a general conference disappointed both the conservative right and the liberal left, because congregational decisions to stay or go were rarely determined by ideological agreement anyway. They were determined by lifestyle compatibilities and the ability of church leaders to avoid stereotypes and empathize with the real cultural diversity of North America.

Ironically, the pseudo-victory of the “Traditional Plan” in the recent General Conference is a de-facto endorsement of the “One Church Plan”. The one is theory, but the other will be reality. This has nothing to do with the position taken. It’s because in taking the decision the conference rejected the leadership of its own Bishops. The bishops invested four years of prayer, listening, and study to discern “a way forward” because delegates in the last conference trusted the collective wisdom of their denomination shepherds. The vote in this conference was not just a vote of non-confidence for some Bishops, but a tacit rejection of the episcopacy itself. And this only empowers local churches to chart their own course and follow their own hearts.

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